Wine & Beer

Autumn beer is here: Fall into the Central Coast’s best craft brews

Autumn is officially here. That means it’s time to lay down the lagers and snag some more substantial suds.

Here’s what to look for at Central Coast breweries as the days grow short and nights turn dark.

Oktoberfest beers

Oktoberfest actually kicked off in September, so break out the lederhosen and grab a stein.

In a German biergarten, “you’d be offered a mass (liter glass) of bright golden to amber-colored, highly drinkable and refreshing Märzen bier, or Oktoberfest-style beer,” said Matt Brynildson, brewmaster of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

The Paso Robles brewery pays annual homage to that tradition with Oaktoberfest. In 2019, the beer was lagered (conditioned at cold temperatures) for two months in French oak barrels that previously housed Napa wine, then Firestone stout.

Märzens typically feature crisp malts that aren’t too heavy, though Oaktoberfest adds some signature Firestone Walker hoppiness.

Buellton-based Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., which is getting ready to open its San Luis Obispo Public Market location soon, offers a contemporary-style fest bier that’s not overly malt-forward.

As head brewer Kevin Ashford said, it’s “prime for session drinking.”

“The beer itself has wonderful notes of toasted sweet bread, cracker and meadowy floral notes,” he said. “It is truly one of my favorites that we produce.”

San Luis Obispo brewery SLO Brew is bringing back its Stein Slammer, “a pretty traditional malty lager with some reddish colors to reflect the season,” brewer Steve Courier said, just in time for Rocktoberfest on Oct. 11.

You might also find some fest beer at BarrelHouse Brewing Co.’s downtown San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles locations — if it didn’t all get finished off at the brewery’s Sept. 21 Oktoberfest. The Paso Robles location’s acre-plus beer garden makes a perfect setting for your own Munich-style celebration.

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Rhinestone Red is among the craft beer offerings from Silva Brewing in Paso Robles. Courtesy of Silva Brewing Co.

Dark lagers and red ales

As the days get shorter, the beer we drink gets darker. Bridging the gap between the light beers of summer and the heavy beers of winter, dark lagers move to the forefront in fall.

“Honestly, I am a fan of traditional German beers year round, but fall offers this amazing change of climate that makes me crave more malt-driven beers like Dunkel-style lagers and dark lagers,” Ashford said.

It may be hard to order I Dunkeled in My Pants with a straight face, but this light brown lager from Figueroa Mountain is no joke. It took the gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2016. Once You Go Schwarz is the brewery’s take on a black lager.

Look, too, for General Schwarz, a smooth, slightly bitter schwarzbier from Central Coast Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo that also won gold in 2016.

Another way to go dark? A nice caramel-inflected red ale.

Silva Brewing in Paso Robles is bringing back Rhinestone Red, with hop flavor and bitterness from both wet and dry hopping emerging from the caramel malt profile. “This is a hoppy red ale with rich malt flavors to satiate the palate,” brewer and co-owner Chuck Silva said.

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Night Ryder, a black rye IPA from BarrelHouse Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, seems made for sipping around the campfire. Courtesy of BarrelHouse Brewing Co.

Hoppy brews for fall

Super hoppy beers, with their aggressive, bitter flavors, can be a bit much for hot summer days. But now that things are cooling off, it’s time to welcome hops back in the mix.

A boundary-busting fall sipper that seems made for sitting around a crackling fire is BarrelHouse Brewing Co.’s black rye IPA, Night Ryder, a piney, spicy dark ale with just a hint of malt sweetness.

“Each year we crave the release of our Night Ryder black IPA and its delicious dark malts and hoppy goodness to share around the campfire with friends,” marketing manager Chris Vaughn said.

For SLO Brew’s new anniversary beer (cheers to 31 years!) the brew team played around with a new hop treatment.

“Hops generally come pelletized or whole,” Courier said, “but the hop industry has been coming out with other forms of processed hops such as cryo, which concentrates oils and aromas for more intense hop character without loading your beer up with excessive plant material.”

The result is a double IPA with both pellet and cryo Ekuanot hops.

Silva has a new release of his popular imperial IPA, Yakima Express.

Those looking for something a little different may still be able to find some of Silva’s Chuck-Amok, a zesty Belgian-style IPA combining California and Belgian monastery ale yeasts with a generous helping of fruity, citrusy hops.

Beers off the beaten path

And then there are those brews that don’t fit neatly into categories but tie well into the transition from summer.

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Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles puts a toasted coconut twist on its popular Velvet Merlin with Coconut Merlin. Courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

MJ’s Spicy Ginger saison is a summer Silva release that will carry over well to the mercury levels and foods of fall.

BarrelWorks, Firestone Walker’s Buellton-based wild and barrel-aging outfit, is debuting Bretta Blanc, a wild ale fermented with juice from both sauvignon and chenin blanc grapes from brewery co-founder David Walker’s personal vineyard.

“It’s our twist on a late summertime bubbler,” BarrelWorks master blender Jim Crooks said. “This beer crosses the wine/beer frontier with a light body, clean aromatics and effervescent champagne-like carbonation.”

The barrels that went into the blend were filled over the course of three years, Crooks said, “giving this beer plenty of depth and characteristic to keep you thinking.”

And up at the mothership in Paso Robles, coconut creates a bridge between lazy summer days and the warming milk stouts of winter.

Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merlin, which morphed into Mocha Merlin in 2018, takes on a toasted coconut twist this year as Coconut Merlin.

“The coconut takes this beer to another level,” Brynildson said. “It will be a perfect fall sipper as the weather cools down.”

How to enjoy fall beers

What’s the best way to save an autumn brew? A few Central Coast brewers shared their favorite ways to enjoy fall beers.

“I’m of German descent and spend as much time in the motherland as possible, so I have to admit that I dream all summer long about dusting off my lederhosen, sitting in a fall biergarten and drinking well-made Märzen with friends,” Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing Co. said.

He suggests pairing Oktoberfest-style beer with a hearty dish — typically schweinshaxe, or, crispy pork-knuckle, served with a potato dumpling, red cabbage and a large Bavarian-style pretzel. If you don’t want a heavy meat dish, try a steckerlfisch, a whole trout grilled on a stick.

“That combination, a cool fall evening outdoors under the chestnut trees and the sound of friendly conversation (preferably in German, whether you can understand it or not) is heaven for me,” Brynildson said.

Jim Crooks, BarrelWorks
Jim Crooks is the master blender at BarrelWorks, Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s Buellton-based outfit for wild and barrel-aged ales. Courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

Chuck Silva of Silva Brewing prefers some patio time.

He serves fall beer with barbecue chicken thighs or tri-tip. “Maybe start with some cream-cheese filled, bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers?” he suggested.

SLO Brew brewmaster Steve Courier also enjoys “chilling with the wife and dog on our patio.”

“When it comes to pairing, I like to snack and drink rather than sit down for a big meal and beers,” Courier said. “My ‘go to’ is chips and salsa with a pilsner or a pale.”

BarrelWorks master blender Jim Crooks of BarrelWorks loves “getting my hands on fresh garden vegetables, particularly those that I can make into a fresh garden salsa.” His recipe includes tomatillos, tomatoes, a variety of fresh spicy peppers, cilantro and sometimes basil.

“I particularly love incorporating a fresh batch of chunky tomato salsa with some freshly caught and limed halibut or rock fish to make some irresistible homemade ceviche,” Crooks said. “The acidity of the citrus from the lime and lemon make for a great comparison for most of the Barrelworks beers —particularly Bretta Tangerine or my personal favorite, Pixie Dusted.”

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Kevin Ashford is the head brewer of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. in Buellton.

For Chris Vaughn of BarrelHouse Brewing Co., it’s all about “the great outdoors.”

“Nothing beats the cooler days, longer nights, and seductive call of a crackling campfire,” Vaughn said.

What about packing your favorite beer for a pinnacle picnic?

“I like to go hiking ... After reaching a summit and taking in the view, I like to reward myself with a great fall beer,” Kevin Ashford of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. said. “Last fall I remember doing Valencia Peak and enjoying our schwarzbier.. I also did the same here in the Santa Ynez Valley by doing the Davy Brown loop while enjoying some of our Davy Brown ale.”

“Just as the weather begins to change, I start to crave these beers that are a bit more complex, Ashford said. “I also love making pretzels at home and drinking our German dunkel. The pairing is heavenly!”

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